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Kempton Bunton: The Bus Driver Who Stole a Masterpiece

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A Masterpiece Goes Missing

In 1961, a Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington vanished from London's National Gallery. Was this the work of a sophisticated gang of art thieves active at the time? A hue and cry was raised to recover the national treasure.

Francisco Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington. It was quite small, measuring 25.3 in × 20.6 in (64.3 cm × 52.4 cm).

Francisco Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington. It was quite small, measuring 25.3 in × 20.6 in (64.3 cm × 52.4 cm).

The Duke of Wellington by Goya

In August 1812, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, led British troops in liberating Madrid, Spain from the French. So thankful were the Spanish that their great artist Francisco Goya painted a portrait of the victorious general.

The duke bought the painting from Goya and then passed into the possession of members of his family until it ended in the hands of John Osborne, 11th Duke of Leeds. Osborne was a dissolute character who squandered the family fortune so, in 1961, he put the painting up for sale at Sotheby's auction house.

The bidding was brisk and eventually the portrait was bought by an American collector for £140,000 (about £3.3 million in today's money). The thought that such a national treasure might move to the United States upset some people.

The Wolfson Foundation stepped up. The foundation was created by the retail store magnate Sir Isaac Wolfson and distributes grants to encourage excellence in the arts, science, and other endeavors. The foundation offered £100,000 and the British government added £40,000 to purchase the artwork.

The collector, Charles Wrightsman, gracefully agreed to relinquish his claim to the masterpiece. The portrait was put on display at the National Gallery in London on August 2, 1961.

Kempton Bunton, struggling to survive on a weekly pension of £8 (£165 today), took note of these vast sums of money. He thought such riches ought to be used to alleviate the conditions of poor people. He developed a plan to bring this about.

The imposing façade of the National Gallery in London's Trafalgar Square.

The imposing façade of the National Gallery in London's Trafalgar Square.

On August 21, 1961, Kempton Bunton pulled off his masterful heist. A less likely art thief it's hard to imagine; a balding man on the wrong side of middle age, wearing Bakelite-rimmed spectacles, carrying a fair bit of extra poundage, and wearing a raincoat. Not the suave international criminal of the George Clooney, David Niven, or Roger Moore stereotype.

Having cased the joint, as Mickey Spillane would have put it, Bunton learned from indiscreet guards that the security system was turned off in the early morning so the cleaners could do their work before the visitors arrived.

The day before his caper he visited the gallery, found a handy toilet, and opened its window. Then, he also found a ladder that had been conveniently left lying around by some construction workers.

So, on the morning of, he simply climbed the ladder to the window he had left open, found the Duke of Wellington in his usual place, lifted him off his mounts, and left by the way he had come in. The cleaners were busy cleaning and didn't notice him. The guards were likewise inattentive being engaged as they were in a game of cards.

When the theft was discovered, there was a terrible hullabaloo. The director of the National Gallery immediately offered to resign. (People in charge when a goof-up happened used to do that then).

Trains, planes, and ships were searched and hundreds of people were questioned by police. A reward of £5,000 (more than £100,000 in today's money) was offered for the safe return of the duke.

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Interpol was brought in because this had to be work of a highly sophisticated crime syndicate. Meanwhile, the duke was resting in the back of a wardrobe in Bunton's house.

Then, the National Gallery received an anonymous letter: “The act is an attempt to pick the pockets of those who love art more than charity. The picture is not and will not be for sale. It is for ransom: £140,000 to be given to charity. If a fund is started it should be quickly made up and on the promise of a free pardon for the culprits the picture will be handed back. None of the group concerned in this escapade have any criminal convictions. All good people are urged to help this affair to a speedy conclusion.”

The conclusion was not speedy. The trail ran cold and the media moved on to more urgent matters such as which politician had been caught in bed with which starlet.

Notes from the Thief

Over the next four years, Bunton sent notes to newspapers saying the duke was safe. All he wanted, he said, was £140,000 to set up a charity to buy television licenses for the poor and elderly. Oh, and immunity from prosecution. But, nobody took him up on his anonymous offers.

Eventually, he grew tired of the whole escapade so, in June 1965, he mailed a left luggage ticket to the Daily Mirror newspaper. The missing picture was found in a Birmingham train station minus its frame; before long, it was back on display in the National Gallery.

A month later, Bunton walked into a police station and confessed to the whole crime. Apparently, he had imbibed a little too freely in a pub and let slip the story of the stolen Duke of Wellington portrait. When the beer fog had cleared, he decided to come clean fearing that some undeserving pub customer with good hearing might falsely claim the £5,000 reward.

Somebody tipped off the media that the dastardly thief of the famous painting had been apprehended and had confessed. The tabloids loved it and cast Bunton as the underdog who had struck a blow for the disadvantaged. The authorities took a different view and threw a bunch of charges at him, including theft.

In Britain, people are required to buy TV licenses. Detector vans (above) roam the streets looking for people who have not paid their license fee.

In Britain, people are required to buy TV licenses. Detector vans (above) roam the streets looking for people who have not paid their license fee.

The Trial of Kempton Bunton

In November 1965, the trial of Kempton Bunton opened at London's Old Bailey. His barrister, Jeremy Hutchinson, Q.C., made the case that his client never intended to keep the Goya painting but only to borrow it, so he could not be guilty of theft. The jury bought that argument by finding Bunton guilty only of the theft of the frame and acquitted him of all other charges.

The judge did little to hide his irritation at the jury's verdict and gave Bunton a three-month prison sentence.

In 1969, the media got hold of a story that it was not Bunton, but someone else who pulled off the actual theft. Police, at the time of his arrest, doubted that an overweight, older man, who had retired because of injury, had the agility to clamber up a ladder and through a window, and then return while carrying a picture.

Was it Bunton's 20-year-old son Jackie who pulled off the heist? In 1966, Jackie Bunton was reported to be shopping the movie rights to his father's story saying his lawyers “knew as little about the truth as you do.”

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1999, 34 years after Bunton's appeal, the British government cancelled the requirement for a television license for people 75 and older.
  • The Scream by Edvard Munch was stolen from the National Gallery of Norway in 1994. The four thieves left a note behind reading “Thanks for the poor security.” The painting was recovered two years later in a sting operation.
  • Fifty years earlier than the theft of Goya's Wellington on the same day and almost to the minute the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris. You can read about that here.
  • In 1969, Caravaggio’s masterpiece Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence was stolen from a church in Palermo, Italy. It has never been recovered and police believe it has been passed around among Mafia bosses.
  • The 2022 movie The Duke starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren covers the story of Kempton Bunton and the theft of the Duke of Wellington painting.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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